Giving Control and Taking Control: Student Agency and Education

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When I first started teaching in 2005, as a very shy and extremely nervous casual tutor at Deakin University’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus, I never thought about student agency. The undergraduate students I was ‘responsible for’ were always happy – even enthusiastic – to be what some judgementally (but probably accurately) describe as ‘spoon-fed’ the required information, the required way of doing things, the required means of completing the assessment tasks (and at a times, as a by-product of these things, the ‘required’ manner in which to think). The strongest card I had in my hand was that I would use my ‘Study Notes’ documents as a carrot to ensure – with generally positive success – ongoing tutorial attendance. I would only email these to students who attended; my taking of the roll consisted of me getting students to write their email addresses down in addition to their names, and I would forward them the document later that night.

I’m not criticising this practice; it can actually be a quite effective pull-factor in getting students to class – a worthy end in itself. Yet this strategy does have its limitations, and I saw it becoming less effective for me as time went on both as a casual tutor and later in my role as lecturer and Unit Chair, which necessitated me making all of my teaching materials available to all students without any attachment to attendance. Even before this, I asked many groups of students throughout my years as a sessional tutor about what happened to the Study Notes I sent them. I consistently found that very few recipients would ever actually open these documents that had laid bare the tutorial plan I’d used with its extra theoretical content, case studies, study questions, video links, assignment advice, and so on. But students still liked to have them; they even seemed to provide a sense of ‘security’. Not unlike my collecting of Ultra Fleer X-men cards in the 1990s, there seemed to be a strong desire to ‘collect the set’. At least my cards were read multiple times after they were sleeved; undoubtedly, few graduates would still have my Study Notes archived somewhere, no matter how hungrily they were craved for them at the time…

X-men Cards.jpg
Photograph by Adam Brown, 5 May 2016.

This is just one example of the (flawed) student reliance on the teacher that I find myself rallying against more and more as the years go by. I don’t say this to lay the sole blame on students either; educational systems have long been the bastion of rote learning and all its differently mutated descendants – and I was complicit in reinforcing the dominance of this species for long enough myself.

Now the empowerment of student agency is not only an internal mantra, but has seeped more and more explicitly and transparently into my pedagogical approach.Students shouldn’t rely on me because they can’t afford to rely on me – not only because I cannot possibly be an ‘expert’ in and on this immensely complex digital media world, but also because authentic learning about this world can’t be secured by being told about it by someone else. Any endeavour to ‘give’ people control always requires those same people to take control, and this goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of student learning by making, doing, sharing, and connecting. Employing gamification in my teaching across various media platforms by introducing a virtual currency or points system I called ‘Tiffits’ has certainly enhanced student learning in these ways this trimester, as I outlined in a recent video, but the actual outcomes comprise the all-important end game. The Tiffit tally is redundant once the trimester ends; it’s where that tally took people that I’m more interested in.

Students thrive when they take control; it’s after all what a university education – any education – is, or should be, designed to allow them to do. There are boundaries that this agency must take place within of course, but the notion that the teacher alone must set these boundaries may well threaten the whole undertaking from the beginning. Curriculum design, after all, can be as organic as student learning – and I’ve seen many examples of this kind of learning of late. I could point to numerous examples of student agency producing unexpected, productive, and highly valuable outcomes throughout the past few months alone, but its manifestation has been no clearer this week than in what has been hashtagged the #StudentOnlyChallenge. It would be wrong for me to describe what this is; instead, I should let the media (or rather the students) do it for me…

The ‘disappearance’ of the teacher in such circumstances is never literal, but backing away to figuratively – and sometimes actually – watch from a corner (or outside the classroom window as it may be) does have its merits. Every Twitter conversation, every exchange of ideas on SoundCloud, every interaction on YouTube that I’m not a part of reveals the power of student agency. And the creative, collaborative, and collegial environment that this engenders is where I get most of my ideas and energy from (the rest comes from Tiffany). So the last point to make is that students are not the only ones who benefit from their creative freedom; as can be seen in my two latest Digital Media Snapshot videos below, it also inspires their teachers…

I’ve been done with spoon-feeding for a while now. I’m still happy to feed students things – as long as they feed me in return. That’s how it should work. That’s the only way it can work.

Thanks for reading.



Sexing Up Digital Media: From Online Dating to Sexting to Porn

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My recent conversation with Natalie Hendry (also podcasted) about anything and everything relating to romance and sex (that we could fit into twenty-five minutes!) is a must-see, as Natalie teases apart many of the complexities of – and shatters some commonplace myths about – the subject. You can also read a great blog written by Natalie that expands on some of her thoughts here. So, there’s lots to think about there alone. Maybe I’m coming across as over-(cyber)sexed, but there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about in relation to this topic and in addition to the videos below, I have one more issue for you to reflect on! [Okay, stop hyperventilating… check… continue blog post…]

One subject I didn’t touch on in any of the other material I’ve develope for this week is highlighted by the title of a 2009 science-fiction film starring Bruce Willis. Surrogates is an intriguing depiction of how sexuality might be (?) mediated in the near(ish) future – although as with all of these kinds of films, it’s actually more of a commentary on today’s digital media practices than some kind of prophecy. You can watch the trailer for Surrogates here, which will give you a fairly good idea of the film’s content. What seems to be the ‘message’ here? Does the film seem to put forward a dystopian perspective? If you’ve watched the film before, do you think the filmmakers effectively critique the sexualisation and eroticisation of the (particularly female) body in contemporary culture, which they seem to be trying to do, or is voyeuristic entertainment at the very core of the film’s attempt to engage audience members? You might also like to think about how similar films you have seen (such as Gamer, another 2009 production) generate meanings about sex and sexuality – and how digital media has changed things… allegedly.

Don’t worry, I’m done. I need a break from me now too, and am tempted to go play some Xbox – though I won’t be going near this one… ‘Thing’ from The Addams Family was always creepy enough…

Playful Publics: The Gamification of Everyday Life

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The majority of people reading this post – and there may be few enough for this reason – will be busily working on their university assessments (either for the unit I’m teaching or other units). With this in mind, I’ve made a personal pledge to keep this blog post to one paragraph in length. Hopefully the video below will provide a guilt-free study break for those who need to take a breather from working in the digital mines (Tiff’s in it, so it should be at least partially entertaining). In this video, I explore the growing phenomenon of gamification, reflect on why it’s come about, examine the ways in which it’s been applied for the first time to my teaching (and my students’ learning), and highlight the great case study of Habitica via a cameo by postgraduate student Sarah De Vries. I can’t wait to try this app out myself! I’ve also included below an extra conversation with Danielle Teychenne, mapping her movement from undergraduate student to industry practitioner, along with the great forms of gamified learning she’s working on and with. This video was actually our first collaboration in 2014, with our imminent web series Our Gamified World revealing just how far things can progress with a bit of networking and commitment within the short space of less than 12 months! Enjoy:)

Celebrity, Performativity, and the Age of the Selfie: Young People and Virtual Selfhood

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Ever since a student declared via Twitter a few years ago that she wanted to make my dog Tiffany go viral on the internet, I knew there was something very interesting, very important, and very special happening in my use of social media when it came to Tiff. Well, to be honest, I’d known that from the moment I first started including pictures of her in old lecture slideshows that there was a certain dynamic created by having a cute maltese-shitzu dog ‘teach’ part of your units. We have the pervasiveness of lolcats and funny dog videos on YouTube to thank for that – at least in part – but more importantly, the persona of Tiff reveals just how complex the intersection(s) of celebrity culture, performativity, and online identity can be.

While I didn’t actively encourage this year’s students to follow Tiff’s own Twitter account @virtualtiff, which I initially created for teaching in 2014 but now dedicate to my passion for nonhuman animal welfare, it was interesting – though perhaps unsurprising – that Tiff began to accrue an increased following (in both senses) of her own. As a result, I almost unconsciously began to ‘relegate’ more of my teaching activity to her account than I had initially planned to, with the organic nature of social media-based curriculum expansion spawning #TiffsTwitterTips on Vine and a series of Twitter polls I hashtagged #TiffsPolls, among other content. The fact that I’ve had multiple requests (and even the above Twitter poll) requesting the presence of Tiffany at a seminar I’m facilitating in Geelong tomorrow says enough in itself. And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told Tiff’s the best part of my videos – I’m certainly not offended by this (and I agree!), but I’m starting to feel sorry for any students enrolled who aren’t fans of dogs… No, not really.

My most vigorously communited lesson in my teaching that we learn by doing and experiencing is once again reinforced by the numerous instances of mini ‘celebritified’ moments occuring each and every day the unit runs. Even the cool-headed PhD researcher of social media and identity Emily van der Nagel got some kind of buzz out of being featured on a small-time YouTube channel, which drew attention to her work, ideas, and persona from outside the unit as much as from within. This was testified to by the Twitter conversations that ensued from the below tweet and Emily’s own noticing of the YouTube comments posted by students.

Every like, every retweet, every follow, and every reply reinforces the close connection of the ways in which celebrity culture has worked for over century and the behaviours of social media users in a considerably shorter timeframe. Even when they aren’t carefully planned, the performances we use to negotiate this multilayered online world are often strategic and sometimes less so – but they are always meaningful. Sure, there are both positive and negative implications of this phenomenon, but it’s been a long time since I’ve found the commonly used term ‘narcissism’ very useful for anything.

Images in particular are powerful – the stats revealing how much they enhance engagement with tweets is revealing in itself. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the ‘fake’ selfies I take and upload to convey some form of message or ask some kind of question always garner more likes than any any other tweet I post with the unit hashtag. Tiff’s presence no doubt helps, but there’s a great deal of irony to this for me in that I’ve always been the kind of person to stay outside the frame of a photograph being taken if at all possible and have seldom taken ‘real’ selfies – although that might make my exaggerated, stage-managed, intentionally unappealing selfies all the more authentic? Maybe that makes them even more ‘narcissistic’? See what I mean about that word?! Either way, I recently felt the need to contradict my seemingly highly revealing and personal performance(s) with the following tweet:

I genuinely mean what I wrote there, but you may well respond ‘Hang on, that can be seen as just as much of an artificial performance too!’ – and you’d be exactly right.

Good luck finding the ‘real’ me!

As strategic as we might be, the performances we play out in our everyday lives are not always under our complete control. Every time I edit someone else’s appearances in my videos (such as those of Emma Whatman and David Marshall below), I’m ‘changing’ them just as much as they might change themselves every time they take, re-take, crop, filter, and upload a selfie. And when Dylan Hornsby cleverly appropriated my recent video footage to answer a question I ‘refused’ to answer myself, he not only fixed me at the centre of another fleeting ‘celebrity’ moment, but experienced a burst of reputational status through the engagement with his tweet.

Of course, all of these moments are transitory – the YouTube comments will peter out; the Vine loops will slow to a crawl; the Twitter likes will fade into the distance – but that isn’t really any different from the experiences of the ‘real’ celebrities either. The affect that everyone to some extent feels is as real as it is fleeting, and it’s not an inherently bad thing. The only one who doesn’t care about any of this is Tiff, and she’s probably the biggest celebrity of us all…

That’s enough ramblings from me, anyway – there are others who have far more interesting things to say about online identity. And I’m actually starting to wonder whether or not writing analytically about Tiffany/Tiff/the pixels on the screen that make up her projected image is starting to rub away some of the celebrity sheen she has had built up around her. Yes, it’s far too early in the unit for that kind of disillusionment – forget I said anything, and enjoy watching ‘Tiff the Celebrity’ grace your screens once more!

The above video is also available in podcast form via SoundCloud.

meMedia or iRobot?: Constructing Identity(s) in the Online World

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Did I really take Tiffany to the beach last week?

And if she went, was I really there?

Brighton Beach.jpg
Photograph by Adam Brown, 31 March 2016.

I thought I would use this blog to expand on a story I told in my latest Digital Media Snapshot video. I actually expanded on this story a lot more when I was recording the audio narration, but had to cut it when the video was getting too long, so I can partly transcribe the ‘extended Director’s Cut version’ here. For some context, you might need to watch this clip below (just the 90-second beach-related section):

The first thing I need to say about this is to offer a correction, as my partner pointed out to me after I made this video that instead of telling me ‘I think I still have that’, she actually said…

‘I think I still feel that’

While this might only seem to be a minor reminder of the fragility of human memory (even within the 24 hour space between beach trip and video creation!), the use of the word feel seems really important to me. My partner’s instinctive anwer highlighted the role affect plays in experience – and if someone felt nothing stir within them during a trip to the beach because of their smartphone or a DSLR camera hanging around their neck, then something would be terribly wrong. But that wasn’t the case here.

One of the photographs I used in the video without having time to explain it was of a woman in the distance who appears to be taking either a selfie or a photograph of the coastline. I can actually guarantee with relative certainty that she was taking a selfie (probably more than one), because she had passed us on the walking track a few minutes before and we’d already observed her spending a lot of time trying to get good quality pics with the sand and the sea behind her. This image shows a further round of selfies she took just around the bend, just a short distance away from her previous series. And given she was on a one-hour walk, it’s likely she would engage in more screen self-love before she reached her destination. (Some people may have actually sighed, scoffed, or snickered at that, which is partly why I’m writing this blog).

Photograph by Chen, 31 March 2016.

When our paths crossed in the middle of her selfie rounds, this woman was the third person I asked to take a photo of the three of us (Tiff, my partner, and myself), as the previous two beach-goers we’d enlisted had done a pretty terrible job – not trying to sound judgemental, but shit photos are shit photos!:) Third time was a charm though, as this lovely woman gave a full minute of her time to us and not only made extra-sure we were happy with the snapshots she took, but also chatted to us before she moved on. Was she trying to prove that she was just as capable of holding a human conversation as anyone else? Well, no, of course not; she took her interpersonal skills for granted, and so she should. The other people we had asked for help from weren’t rude, but they weren’t more friendly than this selfie-taking creature plodding along the beach either. In fact, if I’m to be really honest about it, this narcissistic monster arising from the digital void was not only the best photographer, but the friendliest person we met all day.

Throughout the past week or so, I’ve been seeing a range of articles and videos tweeted by students that lament our alleged detachment from reality. This is really great stuff to kickstart conversations with, and raises fascinating questions for us to ponder. What’s perhaps been most interesting for me though is the realisation that the more I think about and teach this broad issue of online identity, the more I feel like I’m putting across an almost utopian perspective to counter-balance the anxiety – the fear – that we are no longer able to communicate, that we are no longer ourselves, that we are no longer (apparently) the people we once were. This video by Prince Ea is the perfect example of this kind of discourse:

An effective evocation of affect is unquestionably at work here – it’s a well-written reflection/poem/song and a beautiful filmed video, and I really enjoy watching it. But when Prince Ea mourns that it’s ‘Kinda ironic ain’t it/ How these touch screens can make us lose touch’, I find myself thinking that it’s also kind of ironic that he’s relying on the same media platforms, conventions, and engagement that he’s criticising to get across his message (and with more than a half a million more subscribers than me, he’s doing pretty well off the platform…).

As with the mainstream news media, there’s a lot of ‘harking back to the past’ in this and similar laments, a yearning for some kind of paradise that never really existed in the first place. The video introduction on my childhood I made several years ago, which is included at the beginning of the above Digital Media Snapshot, might seem to do a similar thing, but it was always meant to have a strong degree of sarcasm to it. When I get asked for interviews by journalists, I frequently get a very strong sense that this kind of discourse is informing their questions and expected answers – and I often find myself pushing back there too. I’m by no means someone who will glorify digital media in all its forms; I’m more than willing to accept and expose the risks, the pitfalls, the dangers, and the limitations so often evident in its use(s).

However, when it comes to this issue of online identity, many people – and I include here so many students – are so influenced by the commonplace dystopian perspective to the point of being galvanised into inaction, rather than the action that can bring about the creative expression of individuality made possible in media-making. For this reason, it was actually quite risky for me to recently use the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror at the start of this unit, as a compelling cultural text such as this could just as easily have reinforced existing anxieties as motivated viewers to re-think their practices as passive consumers. Drawing on Brooker’s blurring of the boundaries of what exactly ‘reality’ is, and how this intersects with Prince Ea’s contemplation on human experience, it’s almost enough to get me wondering if we were really at the beach recently afterall…

'186.365 - July 5, 2010' by Morgan
186.365 – July 5, 2010 by Morgan (CC BY 2.0)

The generalised notion that we are somehow changed by contemporary digital media culture – and that this development is overwhelmingly for the worse rather than for the better – is particularly ironic to me given that I’m invariably working with people who are not only immensely reliant on social media in their everyday lives, but have also chosen the subject as the central element – or at least a significant part – of their university studies and future careers. People are of course welcome to have whatever perspectives, opinions, and beliefs they want to have, but it is curious that overcoming the doubt and skepticism around being active, engaged, and visible online sometimes feels like the greatest hurdle faced in a unit predominantly concerned with the unprecedented opportunities that the practical engagement with online media offers.

My Mum was visiting me when I was reviewing my Digital Media Snapshot to double-check the editing, and she was watching over my shoulder as the aforementioned section played through. As soon as my voiceover asked the question ‘Do you ever worry that we spend too much time trying to get the perfect photo and miss out on the experience?’, my Mum – who avoids Facebook like the plague and is for the most part very uninterested (to say the least) in social media generally – abruptly answered ‘Yes!!’. My partner and I would give a different answer. It seems to me that how one answers this seemingly insignificant question is actually really important.

Several years ago, if I saw a woman twice taking a bunch of selfies at a 30 metre interval, I probably would have thought her fairly strange, and maybe even made a joke at her expense. But my perspective has changed somewhat. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to push my answer to the above question down your throat, but I can honestly say that – having grown up before the Internet was really ‘a thing’ for most people (and certainly not for me when I was a child and teenager), digital media culture hasn’t really changed all that much about who we are as human beings; the really fundamental aspects of us are still there – both the good and the bad. Well, that’s my opinion anyway…

Oh, and by the way, Tiffany was really at the beach.

We both were.

Me and Tiff at Brighton Beach
Photograph by Chen, 31 March 2016.


Keeping Things Legal and Ethical: Creating Media and Using Source Material

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In 1999, my brother Luke and his friend Glenn helped me make a video presentation for Year 11 English. We all hated giving speeches, so we took the filmmaking option whenever we had the chance – in fact, it wasn’t even really an option (I’m pretty sure we were the only ones at the school who ever made videos in this way, at least in our time there), but the teachers always seemed happy for us to innovate. In this particular video, I needed to respond in some way to Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, so I scripted a court case set in the present where the murderous defendant (Macbeth) tried to justify his treasonous and murderous actions… to Judge Judy Sheindlin.

According to the opening voiceover of the immensely successful courtroom Reality TV program, Judge Judy: ‘The people are real! The cases are real! The rulings are final! This is her courtroom! This is Judge Judy!’ Well, we were the exceptions in this case: the people weren’t real, and it was our courtroom. Using two VCRs, I edited footage of my brother and I arguing on camera as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Malcolm together with extracts from one or two episodes of the popular American series. The editing was far from perfect, but we pulled off some humerous gags at the expense of Judge Judy and/or ourselves and it got us an A+. We were content.

Macbeth screenshot.png
Macbeth (left) and Malcolm in a masterful Shakespearean adaptation from the year 1999. Screenshot of unpublished video.

When we made that video, we had absolutely no awareness of Copyright law – nor would our teachers have, for that matter. We certainly didn’t have any means of distributing it more widely back then: our family would only get the Internet the following year and YouTube wouldn’t be born for some years! We just took the VHS cassette we made into class, rolled the old TV and VCR into the room, played the video for our teacher and peers, then left the cassette sitting in a drawer alongside the others for years until I decided they needed to be digitised or we’d lose them forever. Of course, the ‘Macbeth vs. Judge Judy’ video we put together would easily pass the ‘parody’ test by any standards and it would for this reason be more than fine to use in pretty much whatever way I wanted to. But as much as I would love to upload this and some of my other old videos to my YouTube channel – if only to give my family an easy venue to revisit them when they wanted to reminisce or just remember how stupid we were as kids – I’ve hesitated from doing so for the sole reason that I don’t want to risk giving the wrong impression to the students I’m now asking to make the videos to show their teacher, their peers, and the world.

Understanding when source material can and cannot be used is so crucial for those seeking to work in contemporary media and cultural industries. While students may have a greater measure of flexibility than employed media practitioners while they remain students, it’s crucial they learn about and demonstrate their understanding of issues like Copyright and Creative Commons in their ePortfolios – which are exactly what those aforementioned media practitioners want to see when they are seeking new media professionals to employ in their companies. Having witnessed an overall lack of awareness in this area over several years, this is why you are currently reading this blog post and, if you’d like to know more, viewing the various materials posted below…

Be(ing) Active: Passive Potatoes or Productive Produsers?

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I think I’ve provided more than enough resources to keep students happy (a.k.a. busy, frustrated, and/or annoyed) for this week, so I won’t reflect on the following unit materials more than to highlight once again the fluidity which can characterise the creative production of media content. As I highlight in the Teaching from My Car recording, I only decided what form it would take after recording it. I hadn’t considered it would work better as a podcast rather than the originally planned video. I didn’t know I’d discover what felt like the perfect musical score to serve as intro, outro, and interlude when I was chatting away to myself while driving across the Bolte Bridge or through the Burnley Tunnel. And just in case that makes this particular resource sound trivial, it’s probably the most important resource to have a look at listen to this week!

Thinking reflexively and being open to the opportunities that are on offer so frequently and so generously is a big part of navigating the online world in an active and engaged way. Searching for that ideal image or music track with a Creative Commons licence can sound like a chore when you say it out loud like that, but it actually engenders excitement – and it’s fun. Persuading you of that, however, is next week’s theme. Let’s stick with the here and now, for now. The following resources (and the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode of Black Mirror we’re watching) might seem on one level to be fairly disparate in their subject matter, but there are many connections to be found – and made – between them , and the ways in which creativity and media-making collide is just one of these…